Atmosphere

Finding our Religion

Why our menorah looks right at home next to the Christmas tree.

December 2010

A couple of months ago, my three-year-old son, Sebastian, came up with this stumper: “Mama, how does God see everyone all the time?” Neither Stefania, my wife, nor I had been expecting questions about the almighty’s omniscience from our firstborn quite so soon, but this is a child who has challenged us from the moment he entered the world.

The God question not only surprised us, but it elicited a bit of paternal déjà vu for me. My father was a “PK”—a preacher’s kid—and, after spending his childhood living in parsonages, my dad vowed never to set foot in a church again. When I was four, though, I pointed to a cathedral’s spire and asked what it was, and my mom convinced my dad that going to church wouldn’t hurt me. My religious journey began: baptism, church choir, Bible study, confirmation, and ultimately, after finding myself unable to intellectually justify the existence of God, rejection.

Stefania, on the other hand, was raised in a nonreligious household; her mother is Polish-Catholic, and her father is a Ukrainian Jew. Come December, the Rosenstein family celebrated, as Stef puts it, “bastardized” versions of both Hanukkah and Christmas.

And so it went, with neither Stef nor I worrying much about religion (though Stef studied—wait for it—Renaissance art in college and graduate school, with an emphasis on Christian iconography). When we started dating, and after we were married, we celebrated a secular version of Christmas each year with my family, but that was the extent of our religious participation.

Then Sebastian was born, and the discussions about whether, and how, we wanted to approach organized religion in our home began. Pretty quickly, we agreed that we wanted Sebastian to understand our family’s Judeo-Christian roots. But we also didn’t want to indoctrinate Sebastian, and later our second son, Leo, with any preconceived notions about religion, either pro or against; we hoped to let them explore and figure things out on their own. The difficult question was: how best to toe this line?

Frankly, we hadn’t a clue. But when Sebastian was three, we enrolled him at Denver’s Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center (JCC), which is home to a wonderful early childhood program. The JCC, naturally, filters many lessons through a Jewish lens, so now, Sebastian gets excited about eating challah and doing the “Shabbat sing” each Friday. This past fall, he taught me about the sukkahs (temporary hut-like structures) his class was building for Sukkot. Through the JCC, we ended up getting—almost by accident (or perhaps it was a subconscious desire)—an introduction to the Jewish faith and Judeo-Christian culture for our son. Hence, our aspiring philosopher’s query about an omniscient God. Stef, of course, handled the question with her usual grace: Not everyone, she told Sebastian, thinks there is a God; but for those who do, he or she is very powerful and can see everyone all the time.

Despite our religious ambivalence, Stef and I hope Sebastian and Leo will continue to ask us questions about God. We hope that they will challenge our beliefs and one day find or formulate a belief system—religious or not—that they feel comfortable with. Until then, we will continue to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. We will light the menorah; I, a baptized and confirmed, but nonpracticing, Lutheran, will say the blessing. We will tell the stories of the Maccabees and the olive oil. And we will have a Christmas tree—and explain the Nativity, the gift-bearing Magi, and Christ. To some, I’m sure, this is confusing at best, heresy at worst. To us, it’s an attempt to blend our varied backgrounds and to start a dialogue with our boys about God, religion, and spirituality, that most confounding of human desires.